Germany’s Synodal Way: Teetering towards change or falling on its own weight?

Laced with rhetoric defying Church doctrine, the German Synodal Way is causing alarm in the Vatican.

A friend is the parish priest of a large cluster of parishes in Bavaria. He is a natural pastor and community-builder. In his fifties, he is still a young priest by German standards. He heads a pastoral team consisting of one other priest, a permanent deacon, and a few lay pastoral workers. For two reasons his team is about to be decimated. The Archdiocese of München-Freising is facing severe financial cutbacks, and, in addition, working in the Church as a lay person is no longer attractive resulting in a steady decline in the number of pastoral workers. Those who remain are often assigned administrative responsibilities which impacts on their availability for front-line pastoral ministry. The parish has a beautiful new Church completed only a few years ago at a cost of  €11 million. It is state of the art and won several architectural awards. The costs were almost entirely covered from central funds with parishioners only having to pay a small fraction. This was because of the Kirchensteuer, an arrangement whereby a percentage of income tax is paid to the churches if citizens are registered as members.  


The German Catholic Church is haemorrhaging members. Up until a while ago the number of people in my friend’s parish cluster formally leaving the Church was on average fifty a year. Now, he says, it has risen to nearly fifty a week. The main reason given is the botched handling of cases of sexual violence by bishops with a consequent loss of trust in current leadership and in governance structures. The situation with Cardinal Wölki, still Archbishop of Cologne despite adverse findings against his handling of historical cases, is a major concern, as is new allegations of mishandling cases against Pope Benedict XVI dating back to his time as Archbishop of Munich and his recent apparent refusal to acknowledge his mistakes. Though many parishioners and priests still get on with their daily ministry and practice many have succumbed to border-line despair about the state of the Catholic Church as an institution. Even moderate Catholics take the view that something radical has to happen to restore confidence in the Church in Germany as an institution and they see the Synodal Way as a last resort.  

Meanwhile, however, the Synodal Way has run into serious roadblocks. As Fr Hagenkord made clear, theirs is no ordinary synodal process. Its origins are in the abuse crisis and its mishandling.  Its assembly’s membership was not constituted from the grassroots as in other countries and thus it has been considered unrepresentative and theologically elitist. Moreover, in recent months the Synodal Way has come up with proposals that have put the Church in Germany on a collision path with Rome the likes of which has not been seen since the Reformation. Among the synodal demands are the ordination of women to priesthood, an end to mandatory celibacy for priests, the blessing of same-sex relationships and changes to the Church’s teaching on gender and sexuality.  


However, what has caused most alarm outside of Germany and especially in Rome is a demand that the Church in Germany would adopt a permanent synodal governance structure with the request that bishops would voluntarily submit their authority to this body. They cannot be compelled to do so because of Canon Law. However, some bishops have endorsed this demand, causing Pope Francis to tell the President of the German Episcopal Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, that we already have a good German protestant Church and don’t need two! 

Then there is the critique of Walter Kasper. Kasper, now 89, was a diocesan bishop in Germany until John Paul II appointed him President of the Dicastery on Christian Unity where he worked until he retired. An internationally renowned theologian, he has been close to Pope Francis since he came to office. As a diocesan bishop, Kasper supported an early study on ordaining women as deacons. As the Vatican’s lead on Christian unity, he paved the way for several ecumenical breakthroughs with sister Churches. Kasper’s views cannot be easily dismissed no matter to which side of the debate one belongs. Back in 2003, he wrote that the Church is not a democracy but nor is it characterised exclusively by its hierarchical nature. He said that for the Church to adopt certain democratic principles is not necessarily for it to surrender to the zeitgeist. In fact, he noted that in the past the Church readily adopted feudal and monarchical elements from society and “in the same way it can and must take up some democratic structural elements and procedures today”.  

However, in an explosive lecture a few weeks ago, Kasper stated bluntly that the German Synodal way is in danger of “breaking its own neck”. He expressed concern about a kind of dementia at work which discarded the traditional sources that must be carefully considered in renewing the Church. These include Sacred Scripture, the apostolic tradition, decisions of previous synods, and so on. The insights of natural reason, philosophy and history are also to be considered, but such human criteria must always be subject to the Gospel. “We must not be oblivious to history and think that we can start back at zero”, Kasper remarked.  On the proposal of a permanent synodal structure which would abrogate the authority of bishops he pointed out that synods are always intermittent events in the life of the Church and that a synodical supreme council would not be renewal but rather “an outrageous innovation”.


Furthermore, he excoriated his fellow bishops who have gone along with this proposal and who have indicated willingness to voluntarily subject themselves to a synodal supreme council. “This idea of a voluntary commitment is a trick – and, moreover, a lazy trick.” A bishop de facto betrays his office if he does not seek to remain in apostolic unity not only with his contemporaries but also his predecessors, and clearly any decision along these lines could not possibly be binding on a bishop’s successors.  

The desperate situation on the ground has no doubt driven many bishops to align themselves with the demands of those embarked along the Synodal Way. The reality, however, would seem to be that the Synodal Way has, for now, at least, led the Church in Germany up what appears to be a cul-de-sac. That said, Pope Francis is a great believer in the reality that seemingly impossible situations give the Holy Spirit surprising room for manoeuvre which can result in unexpected but transformative breakthroughs. We can pray that some such transformation will result from this particularly challenging moment along the German Synodal Way. 

Father Eamonn Conway is a priest of the Tuam archdiocese and Professor of Integral Human Development in the School of Philosophy & Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia. 

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